In the third chapter of Credo, Karl Barth discusses what it means to confess belief in God the Father Almighty (Latin: patrem omnipotentem).
First, Barth notes, it is important to note that “the conception ‘Almighty’ receives its light from the conception ‘Father’ and not vice versa.” That is, it is “an act of divine omnipotence through which God makes Himself known to man as Father” (19). In other words, the revelation of God as Father is the act of God by which we come to know what it means to say that God is “omnipotent” (or “all-powerful”). We do not, Barth argues, start with an abstract or theoretical definition of omnipotence (e.g., “the limitless ability to do anything and everything”) and then apply it to God as Father.
So what, then, does it mean for the “Father” to be “omnipotent”? In short, “the revelation of God the Father is the revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. . . [I]n the sense of the symbol, . . . ‘omnipotence’ is identical with the revelation of the Father of Jesus Christ through the Spirit” (20) To know the Father is to know Jesus Christ–and more specifically, Jesus Christ who died, rose again and ascended to the right hand of God Father. To know the omnipotent Father, then, is to know that he is the one who circumscribes life and death; he alone is the one who encloses (cf. “omini) all things as Creator. God the Father alone is the one who has power over life and death, and is thus spoken of as, omnipotent.
[I think Barth’s allusion to omnipotence as something that circumscribes all things is an important qualitative corrective to the typical quantitative view of omnipotence. We’ve all heard the popular supposed conundrum raised about the attribute of omnipotence: “If God can do everything (a quantitative descriptor of omnipotence), can he create a rock so big (again, a quantitative qualifier) that he can’t lift it?” This kind of question is ill-guided, not only because it assumes a quantitative framework for the answer, but because it assumes that omnipotence is first and foremost about force rather than power. God the Father is omnipotent in the sense that he alone exercises the prerogative, the Lordship, over the most powerful of all things known to humanity and from which none can escape: Death. To confess belief in the “Father Almighty” is no mere cognitive affirmation about how much God can do, but is a confession of what kind of power he has: The power to kill and to raise, a power hidden in how he sends his Son to the Cross, but also made manifest in the resurrection from the dead.]
Barth concludes the chapter with three “explanatory” observations about the Father Almighty:
- God’s Fatherhood is an eternally Fatherhood which does not set him into a super-ordinate position over the Son and the Spirit. Rather, “God, as the eternally Begotten of the Father [the Son], and God, as He Who proceeds eternally from the Father and from the Son [the Holy Spirit – filioque!] are in the same way God as God the Father Himself” (26). God’s Fatherhood, in other words, is eternal. He always has been Father, and there was no point at which he was not.
- God’s Fatherhood does not designate the Father as a “part” of God, but as a “person” or “mode of being of the one simple divine being, of one substance with the Son and with the Spirit” (26). [For those interested in the technical details of Barth’s view of the “persons” of the Trinity, he designates the word “mode of being” as a translation of tropos hyparcheos, or τρόπος ὑπάρξεως. For more on this, see Paul M. Collins, Trinitarian Theology West and East: Karl Barth, the Cappadocian Fathers and John Zizioulas, pp. 146-50] Thus, by virtue of the fact that Son and Spirit share in the one substance of God the Father, they also are rightly called “Almighty” (27).
- Even though the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the unified activity of Father, Son, and Spirit is not an undifferentiated unity, but an “ordered unity and in this order the reflection and repetition of the order of his being” (27), i.e., Unified action need not mean undifferentiated persons.
[If we do a quick comparison between Barth’s take on “Father Almighty” in his pre-WWII Credo (1935) and his post-WWII exposition in his later Dogmatics in Outline (DIO, 1947), we see definite parallels, yet important developments, of Barth’s exposition of the “Father Almighty.” You see, in Credo, Barth is still living with the daily unfolding anticipation of Hitler’s regime, while in DIO he sees the devastating results of Hitler’s “legacy” in retrospect. In Credo, there is no mention of the political aspects of God as Almighty; in DIO he ties God’s power more specifically to God being “Lord of all lords, the King of all kings.” Of political powers, he says, “all these powers, which as such are indeed powers, are a priori laid at the feet of the power of God. In relation to Him they are not powers in rivalry with Him” (DIO, 47). And then, “Perhaps you will recall how, when Hitler used to speak about God, he called Him ‘the Almighty’. But it is not ‘the Almighty’ who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme concept of power, who God is. And the man who calls ‘the Almighty’ God misses God in the most terrible way. For the ‘Almighty’ is bad, as ‘power in itself’ is bad” (DIO, 48). What I see here is that Barth’s explicit theological exposition in Credo was no mere “pie in the sky” exercise, but a “real world” political preparation to confront the naked displays of evil power as it appeared on the European scene at the middle and end of the 1930’s and the beginning of the 1940’s, personified as it was in Hitler. Barth’s confession became, in other words, the very real means by which he was able to speak out against a true “anti-christ” who failed to understand God as the “Father Almighty.” This anti-Christ, in fact, proclaimed (to use the phrase from Romans) a “No-God” named, “Almighty” and Barth was right to call him on it.
On the down side, it appears that by this the third chapter of Credo, Barth has forgotten the original purpose of the lectures, which was to bring out “the chief problems of Dogmatics.” Hopefully, this will come to the foreground again as the book progresses.]